Saluting Daniel Halpern, Venerable Champion of Fiction Writers

I was delighted to see Publishers Weekly reporting this afternoon that Daniel Halpern of Ecco Press​ is being awarded The Center for Fiction​’s annual #MaxwellPerkinsPrize for “championing writers of fiction in the United States.” I met Dan in 1987, when his stewardship at the literary magazine Antaeus brought us in to contact. A book I’d edited and published, Suite for Calliope: A Novel of Music and the Circus, won the Drue Heinz Literary Prize, an award sponsored by Antaeus.

Ironically, I had earlier encountered the circus novel, by an as-yet unpublished writer named Ellen Hunnicutt, when I worked as first reader/contest judge at Scribner, who at the time sponsored a first novel prize in Max Perkins’s illustrious name*. Though Hunnicutt’s didn’t win that contest, when my Scribner stint ended I got my first full-time job as an acquiring editor, at Walker & Company, contacted Ms Hunnicutt, and made her book my first-ever fiction acquisition. Some months later, with the novel edited and in galleys, Ellen was named recipient of a different award, the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, chosen and given by Antaeus, for a distinguished body of work in short stories. A few months after Walker & Co published Suite for Calliope, by virtue of an Antaeus arrangement with the University of Pittsburgh Press, Hunnicutt’s short fiction was published in a collection titled In the Music Library. This link leads to other essays I’ve written for this blog that chronicle my experience in acquiring and editing Hunnicutt’s truly exceptional novel. The book received a starred review in Kirkus, sold out its hardcover printing, and Dell acquired the paperback rights. All in all, it was a great experience to have with the first novel I ever worked on, made all the better by Dan Halpern’s generosity toward my author. To me, it is truly fitting that Dan will receive the later iteration of the Maxwell Perkins Prize. I look forward to congratulating him in person.

* As Editor-in-Chief of Scribner in the 1920s-40s, Perkins edited and published novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, among many acclaimed authors.

Distributed Art Publishers (D.A.P.), Great Resource for Art Books at Book Expo America

Eager to Participate in the Adirondack Center for Writing’s Publishing Conference, June 6-7

I’m looking forward to being part of the Adirondack Center for Writing’s Publishing Conference on Sunday June 7. I will be evaluating the work of about a dozen writers during the workshop. It should be fun to encounter all this new work and talk about writing and publishing with all the participants. The conference will be held near Lake Placid, NY. If you know any writers who live in that region of upstate NY, please let them know about the event. Thanks to Michael Coffey and Nathalie Costa for the invitation. Click here for more details and see the screenshot below. 

Tracking Malaria, its Calamitous History and Worrying Future

Fascinating Q&A on C-Span BookTV w/narrative science writer Karen Masterson, author of The Malaria Project: The US Government’s Secret Mission to Find a Miracle Cure, which chronicles the efforts of the US military which had for long been worried about the disease’s potential to infect American troops serving in far-flung locales. There was a move to find a cure for the mosquito-borne disease. Interesting to me, the book, which looks to be fairly serious science, is published by NAL. They brought out it in 2014, apparently first in hardcover. By my reckoning, NAL is a house long known more for mass-market paperback fiction than narrative nonfiction in hardcover. [It looks like they’ve now brought it out now in trade paperback.] Good for NAL, a nice piece of publishing. More on Masterson and her book via this link. You can view the video via this link on BookTV’s website.

One thing Masterson said amazed me. The effectiveness of bed nets—which have been a useful tool in combating malaria, preventing mosquitoes from biting people while they sleep—is being eroded because mosquitoes, hungry for what scientists call their “blood meal,” are adapting their behavior and learning to bite people earlier in the day when they are still out and about. In watching her talk about this global affliction that still sickens and weakens millions worldwide every year—and kills a considerable percentage of those stricken—I was reminded of a book that I began discussing in 2006 with Paul R. Epstein—a doctor and scientist, and at the time, associate director of Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment. Epstein was a trailblazer in studying the effects of climate change on human health. I first heard his distinctive New York accent when he was a guest that year on an episode of “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross. You can still hear it, via this link. Listening to their conversation in a rental car, in a classic ‘driveway moment,’ I learned that due to the planet’s warming temperatures, mosquitoes that transmit malaria have over the past several decades begun doing so at more northern latitudes and higher elevations than they have ever been known to do before. Epstein also discussed the finding that the tick-borne illness dengue fever is also occurring at latitudes and elevations where it was before not seen. Epstein discussed how these diseases are infecting a much greater number of people worldwide due to the warming of our planet.

These are only a couple of the scientific discoveries chronicled in Epstein’s book, Changing Planet, Changing Health: How the Climate Crisis Threatens Our Health and What We Can Do about It, co-written with Dan Ferber, which ultimately came out in 2011. I actually commissioned it in 2007, shortly after I became Editorial Director of Union Square Press at Sterling Publishing, a job that ended two years later when Sterling, a division of Barnes & Noble, shuttered the imprint, a milestone I’ve also written about on this blog. When I left the company, my old bosses quickly canceled Dr. Epstein’s book, although I had nearly completed editing the manuscript. Fortunately, that decision, though very shortsighted, while preventing the book from being published as soon as it might have, it was later picked up by the University of California Press, to be published alongside other important environmental titles. This is a link to the book on U Cal’s website. Sadly, Dr. Epstein, died in November 2011, at age 67, of cancer. Here’s a Washington Post obit on him. Though we fell out of touch after Union Square Press closed, I recall we did speak a couple more times, and he sent me a finished copy of the book, which he inscribed to me with a very generous message, “April 25, 2011 To Phil Turner—The motivating force for this book. Warm wishes, Paul,” pictured below. I didn’t know he was ill, and was stunned by news of his death.

Before Dr. Epstein became a teacher and researcher at Harvard, he had worked as a doctor in places like Mozambique and Angola, devoting himself to the study of tropical diseases and improving public health in developing countries. It was a privilege to meet and work with him. I was really sorry he wasn’t able to make personal appearances in front of audiences, on TV, and on radio, like I first heard him. As I listened to Karen Masterson on C-Span tonight, I found myself wondering if she knows about Paul’s research on the growing incidence of malaria and other illnesses worldwide due to climate change, and if she has perhaps read Dr. Epstein’s book. I see she teaches science writing at Johns Hopkins, so perhaps I’ll have a chance to send her this post and find out. [I did correspond with Ms Masterson and she was interested to learn about Dr Epstein and his book.]

And Yet…Looking at Publishing’s Big Five and the Book Business Today

This weekend I read an essential piece about the state of the book business today from industry analyst Mike Shatzkin. It’s titled “No, the Big Five are not a cartel and it really ignores reality to label them as one.” You may read it at the author’s blog via this link. (Disclosure: I’ve known Shatzkin since 1980.)

His piece, in part, pushes back on rhetoric from some people in the self-publishing community who cast publishing’s Big Five (that’s Penguin Random House, Hachette, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and HarperCollins) as a veritable OPEC of books. He doesn’t so much defend the Five as point out realities that apply in the business, actualities that are sometimes overlooked or skipped over by some of self-publishing’s most zealous celebrants. One critic, Barry Eisler, claimed during a panel at the recent Digital Book World conference that publishers don’t really compete against one another, and instead largely cooperate with each other to the detriment of authors. As Shatzkin shows, this isn’t really borne out by the facts:

“First of all, the Big Five have plenty of competition: from each other, as well as from smaller niche publishers who may but [sic] be ‘big’ but certainly aren’t ‘small’. (That is why the big ones so often buy the smaller ones — they add scale and simultaneously bring heterogeneous talent in-house). They are all quite aware of the authors housed elsewhere among them who might be wooable. In fact, since we have started doing our Logical Marketing work, we have done several jobs which were big author audits commissioned by publishers who wanted to steal the author, not by the one which presently has them signed. Eisler explicitly resisted accusing the publishers of ‘collusion’, but he does accuse them of ‘not competing’ with each other. That is an accusation that is simply not supported by the facts. Nobody who has spent any time talking to people who work in big houses could possibly get the impression that they don’t compete.”

My own outlook on the book business is derived from the fact that I’ve worked in many sectors of it—retail bookselling from 1978-85; small and big-house publishing from 1985 to 2009; and for the past six years, I’ve been working independently, often with self-published authors. I appreciate the new access writers have to publication, an emerging space that’s also enabled me to chart a new career path over the past six years. As an editor and consultant, I help writers pursue all their options, including self-publishing; as an author’s representative, I also look to license books to traditional publishers. I have criticisms of big and small houses, believing, for instance, that they should pay higher royalties than the 25% of net proceeds on ebooks that is common. And yet, I also appreciate what traditional publishers, big and small, are capable of doing for the titles they acquire and publish.

I don’t believe self-publishing solves all problems in the book business, and am uneasy with what I take to be a kind of evangelical fervor for self-publishing exhibited by some people. And yet, I definitely relish the variety in the business now, as barriers to publication have been lowered for many writers who wouldn’t earlier have found their way in to print. If you want an informed perspective on the business today, I recommend you read Shatzkin’s latest column, and keep up with what he posts on his blog. For starters, here’s a screenshot of the first four paragraphs of “No, the Big Five are not a cartel and it really ignores reality to label them as one.”

Glad for Revival of THE REVENANT, a Great Adventure Novel

JANUARY 2016 UPDATE: Readers of this blog may recall my connection to The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge, mentioned on this site a year ago in the post below, after I learned the book, originally published in 2002, was about to be reissued by a new publisher, the basis of a major motion picture. I saw the movie last weekend, and found it quite engrossing, even at more than 2 1/2 hours duration. The cinematography is exceptional, the acting quite believable, and the storytelling very powerful. I recall that author Michael Punke was already then having discussions about possible film adaptations, since the Glass story had already once been filmed, as “Man in the Wilderness,” with Richard Harris  and John Huston in 1971. Even so, over the years no film resulted, that until word came last year of the cinematic collaboration between Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s and Leonardo DiCaprio’s. As the credits rolled following the film last weekend, I saw that the production of course credited the book, though with a proviso I’d not seen before, stating that the movie was “Based in Part on the Novel by Michael Punke.” I imagine the wording was mutually agreed to between the author’s agent and the producers, because the two works do diverge. But I don’t criticize the filmmakers on that score, for as Punke himself wrote in an Historical Note at the end of the novel, the confirmed history surrounding Hugh Glass’s life is scant—little more is known for certain beyond the fact he lived, was a skilled tracker, was mauled by a grizzly bear during an 1823 expedition with the Rocky Mountain Fur Trading Company, following which he was left for dead by two of his likely companions, a miscreant named John Fitzgerald and a teenaged Jim Bridger; Bridger ultimately became a much more famous mountain man than Glass, with modern tourist sites in the Mountain West named after him. I’m pleased to see the movie is bringing more attention to the gripping novel, which is a bestseller in the Picador reissue. I’m also pleased to remind people about the book, since as the Obama administration’s Deputy Trade Representative to the WTO in Geneva, Switzerland, Michael Punke is not permitted to directly promote his own commercial interests. I’m happy to stand in for him, then, as relatives of his have been doing at premieres of the movie, which has now garnered many Academy Award nominations.

When I was a retail bookseller with Undercover Books, this is exactly the sort of novel that we would read in advance galleys from the publisher, then order 50 copies, and sell them all in the book’s first month on sale. If you enjoy adventure tales, I recommend you read this one, a gripping survival story based on the life of a real American who traverses a great swath of the inter-mountain west in a quest for justice, less than 20 years after the Lewis and Clark Expedition had opened the region to exploration.


January 2015nant-front.jpg”>Revenant frontthe BN Review recently I was delighted to discover that one of the most engrossing novels I ever edited and published—The Revenant: A Novel of Revengehas been reissued and is being made in to a major movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who recently directed “Birdman.” The novel, by Michael Punke, was published in 2002, when I was an editorial executive at Carroll & Graf. It’s inspired by the epic life and adventures of a historical figure, Hugh Glass. He was a frontiersman and fur trapper who in 1823 was part of a westward expedition spanning what is today Nebraska, the Dakotas, Montana, and Wyoming. While foraging for game, away from the troop, Glass was attacked and severely mauled by a grizzly bear. Grievously wounded and bleeding, with the skin on his back nearly flayed off his torso, Glass was still conscious when his comrades found him. Believing that Glass would surely die soon, the leader of the troop ordered two men to stay with him until he expired, then bury him and catch up to the group. In the midst of this death watch, a band of Indians approached the camp, panicking the two men: they grabbed Glass’s rifle and hunting knife and fled. Deserted, defenseless, and enraged at being abandoned, Glass refuses to succumb to his wounds; he survives, determined to recover his weapons, vowing revenge on the men who left him to die. The novel is beautifully written and reads like a timeless adventure story. Talk about a film adaptation of the novel began years ago, and I’m delighted to see now it’s really happening, and with such a high profile team. Hugh Glass did inspire one earlier film, in 1971, when actor Richard Harris was cast as the Glass figure in “Man in the Wilderness,” a rather lurid and unexceptional movie. Punke’s telling of this epic saga, with Glass crawling and dragging himself across wild terrain until he was again able to walk, has all the elements for a great movie and I’m hopeful that is what the production will lead to.

Punke’s agent Tina Bennett submitted the manuscript to me soon after 9/11, an event and aftermath that I was close to, as the offices of Carroll & Graf and Avalon Publishing Group were only a few blocks from the World Trade Center. As I chronicled on this blog on Sept 11, 2012, in a post titled Remembering 9/11/01—Running Through a Dust Cloud in Lower Manhattan, the exertions of that day left me with nagging leg injuries that persisted for most of the year that followed. In fact, when I attended the book launch for The Revenant, held in Washington, DC, in the summer of 2002, I took the train from NYC using a cane to help me walk on a still-tender ankle.

Though novels don’t often have subtitles or reading lines, I suggested to the author that we use one here. We had quite an evocative title, though the word ‘revenant’ (a being that returns from the dead) was not then and still isn’t a widely familiar term. Glass’s odyssey seeking revenge and justice resonated powerfully with the spirit of the time, so “A Novel of Revenge” seemed the right way to position the book for readers. The publisher reissuing the book now is Picador, part of Macmillan, and I’m glad to see in online listings they’ve chosen to retain the reading line. Interestingly, they’ve reissued the novel in hardcover, not paperback, a somewhat unusual choice for a book published more than a decade ago, though perhaps a sign of the publisher’s confidence in its continuing relevance.

Michael Punke has written two nonfiction books in the years since 2002, both in Western history, Fire and Brimstone: The North Butte Mining Disaster of 1917 and Last Stand: George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West. The book launch for The Revenant was in DC because Punke worked for a law firm there. Among the hosts at the party was a mentor and colleague to Punke, Mickey Kantor, a lawyer involved in international trade who’d served as chair of the Clinton campaign for president in 1992. Punke now works as President Obama’s Deputy United States Trade Representative and US Ambassador to the World Trade Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. According to this article in Maxim, his ability to engage in promoting his books is very limited by his sensitive position in the federal government. I’m very glad to know that Michael Punke’s first book is coming back in to print, and that a movie is in the works. We have been in touch occasionally over the past decade, and I’m pleased that I have so much good news to congratulate him about when we’re next in touch. Above is the front and below the back cover of the paperback edition of The Revenant from 2003.Revenant back

 

An Unrepentant Literary Forger’s Infamous Career

I’m glad my Facebook post above on prolific forger Lee Israel drew appreciation from Fb friend Joseph Mackin, who shared it on his blog 2paragraphs. This is the link to his nicely presented reposting which looks like this:2paragraphs Lee Israel

Marking Photojournalist Ruth Gruber’s 103rd Birthday

As a book editor, I've had the privilege of working with dozens of talented authors. Amid all the superb writers one sub-group stands out: authors in their 80s, 90s, or even older, in their 100s. This group has included Edward Robb Ellis (1911-1998), author of A Diary of Century: Tales by American's Greatest Diarist. Here is a collection of posts Ive written about him. Another of these remarkable authors is Ruth Gruber, also born in 1911, with whom I've published six books, including her memoir Ahead of Time: My Early Years as a Foreign Correspondent, also the title of a documentary about her. Ruth turned 103 this week, and is still going strong. This is a collection of posts I've written about her. Please join me in celebrating her amazing life and career.